Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Age of Hubris Comes to a Head

Despite collapsing earnings, shattered stock prices, ousted CEO’s, bankruptcies and quasi bankruptcies in the case of Citigroup, Bank of America and AIG, the hubris and arrogance of former financial masters of the universe continues.

As if Merrill Lynch rushing through bonuses before announcing massive losses was not enough, AIG has just upped the ante in the sheer arrogance stakes by taking US taxpayer money and paying bonuses to the very people who blew the place up. Not only that, it seems that some so-called retention bonuses are being paid to employees that are being dismissed, from the NYT:

Mr. Cuomo did not name the bonus recipients, but the numbers are eye-popping, given A.I.G.’s fragile state. The highest bonus was $6.4 million, and six other employees received more than $4 million, according to Mr. Cuomo. Fifteen other people received bonuses of more than $2 million, and 51 people received bonuses of $1 million to $2 million, Mr. Cuomo said. Eleven of those who received “retention” bonuses of $1 million or more are no longer working at A.I.G., including one who received $4.6 million, he said.

How’s that for hubris? Retention bonuses for people who weren’t retained. There goes the argument that you need to pay people bonuses to keep them. However it appears that AIG may have gone too far with this latest tactic. Outrage is being expressed by every politician up to and including the President. Public outrage is reaching a crescendo and to make matters worse, every time AIG makes a statement they just incite more loathing.

Take for example the latest justification for paying derivatives traders bonuses. “It’s in their contracts and the contracts cannot be reneged upon”, “if the American government starts interfering with contracts and changing the rule of law, the U.S. will be no better than a banana republic.” But hold on, isn’t the US government, aka U.S taxpayers, the majority shareholder?

Consider what would have happened if the government had not bailed out AIG . They would have gone into bankruptcy and then all contracts could be legally modified or completely voided. But for some reason we must obey the rule of law because the company whilst for all intents and purposes is insolvent, is not officially in the hands of receivers. Was it not Adam Smith who opined that an economic system that is allowed to operate without a moral foundation would soon lead to an amoral, if not immoral, society?

But why so much outrage over $165 million in bonus payments when we also now know that approximately $49.5 billion of taxpayer money was used to make counter-parties whole to CDS contracts written by AIG? From the

AIG paid out $22.4bn of collateral related to credit default swaps, $27.1bn to help cancel swaps and another $43.7bn to satisfy the obligations of its securities lending operation. The payments were made between September 16 and the end of last year.

Goldman Sachs, which has also accepted US government support, received payments worth $12.9bn. Three European banks – France’s Société Générale, Germany’s Deutsche Bank and the UK’s Barclays – were paid the next-largest amounts. SocGen received $11.9bn; Deutsche $11.8bn; and Barclays $7.9bn.

Can anyone really register surprise that Henry Goldman Paulson was in charge as Goldman Sachs became the biggest beneficiary of public funds injected into AIG? Tim Geithner is not without blood on his hands in all this either and if the policy of privatizing the profits and socializing the losses is to change, Geithner needs to go, simple as that.

Scandals such as Enron and Worldcom pale in comparison to the magnitude of what is currently unfolding. Whilst it is now obvious to all and sundry that the global financial complex grew too large and powerful, it is not yet obvious the extent to which public outrage will compel lawmakers to act.

It is no longer useful to talk about lack of transparency or poor risk management. From Countrywide to Bear Stearns, Lehman, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Fannie and Freddie and AIG there has been lies, obfuscation and outright fraud. The age of hubris cannot come to a close until the executives of financial institutions are held accountable for their actions. It remains to be seen whether the level of public outrage is sufficient and the political will exists to make that happen.